Elections in Denmark Muslim Politician Could Be Surprise Kingmaker
Naser Khader seems to be everywhere -- shaking hands in pedestrian malls and strolling through the streets of Danish cities in jeans and a parka. In the morning, he announces his latest proposals on immigration policy. In the evening, he takes part in an election debate with Pia Kjærsgaard, the chairwoman of the right-wing populist Danish People's Party. There is no doubt about it: The 44-year-old politician is doing everything he can in the final phase of the Danish election campaign.
On Tuesday, Nov. 13, the Danes will go to the polls. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for new elections just two weeks ago. And Khader, the chairman of the newly founded "Ny Alliance" (New Alliance) party, is the shooting star of Danish politics: He's charismatic, media-savvy, courageous -- and the first immigrant to be elected to the Danish parliament.
Since 2001, Denmark has been governed by a center-right Liberal/Conservative coalition under Prime Minister Rasmussen. This coalition has been supported in parliament by the right-wing populist Danish People's Party in exchange for implementing key demands, such as strict policies on immigration. In the most recent opinion polls, Denmark's two main parties -- the opposition Social Democrats and Rasmussen's center-right Liberals -- are running neck and neck, each with roughly 25 percent of the vote.
Surveys show that the New Alliance is poised to garner about 6 percent of the vote. This could make the party a kingmaker, allowing it to decide whether the center-right Liberal/Conservative coalition stays in power or Prime Minister Rasmussen is replaced by a left-wing alliance. Khader could see to it that the government no longer has to depend on the support of the right-wing populists.
The race between the two political camps is close, and the established Danish parties are getting nervous. Partly leaders in the center-right liberal Venstre party under Rasmussen have been caught off guard by the newcomers and are asking themselves, with some irritation, whether the politicians of the New Alliance are more conservative or left-wing.
A Peacemaker During the Cartoon Crisis
Khader first rose to prominence in Danish politics nearly two years ago. The son of a Syrian woman and a Palestinian man, he witnessed Denmark weather an international crisis that shook the country down to its very foundations. When the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, radical Muslims felt insulted. In Islamic countries, Danish flags were burned, embassies were attacked, and there were calls for boycotts of Danish products. Dozens of people died in violent demonstrations, especially in Pakistan. The cartoon artists were forced to go into hiding.
At the time Khader came to stand as a symbol for the successful integration of Muslims in Denmark. The parliamentarian -- at the time, a member of Denmark's Social Liberal Party -- went before the cameras and didn't mince his words. He accused imams living in Denmark of purposely throwing oil on the fire by urging Arab TV networks to agitate against Denmark. During the conflict, the young politician, who had been a member of parliament for five years, acted as an advisor to Rasmussen's government -- and he called for dialogue. Khader founded a network called Moderate Muslims, which later changed its name to the Democratic Muslims.
His involvement in the issue also earned him some enemies. An imam in Copenhagen railed against both Khader and former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, calling them "rats that crawled out of holes." Following threats from Islamicist and extreme right-wing circles, Khader has been under police protection ever since.
A New Party for the 'Moderate Muslim'
Last May, he made a brilliant move. Newspapers wrote of a "shockwave" when Khader turned his back on the Social Liberals and launched the New Alliance along with another politician who had broken away from the party, Anders Samuelsen, and Gitte Seeberg from the Conservative Party.
The message of the three politicians is that the New Alliance is a centrist party that is not committed to coalitions. The group says that it remains open and has set its sights on just one opponent -- the right-wing populist Danish People's Party, which has been stirring things up with its xenophobic policies and has lent its support to Rasmussen's government. "We are running in this election to break the power of the Danish People's Party," explains Khader.
Khader's decision to establish the New Alliance was preceded by a bit of squabbling in his old party. He was especially upset about one particular fellow party member who appeared in parliament with her head covered after the right-wing populists compared swastikas with headscarves. Khader criticized the stunt, saying that it only served to strengthen the Islamists.
Founding the new party in May was a political coup that sparked an enormous response from the general population and the media. Prime Minister Rasmussen said that he personally had great respect for Khader. He pointed out that Khader had fought tirelessly for freedom of expression, equality and democracy, even when this entailed difficulties for him. He welcomed the New Alliance to Danish politics.
There is no doubt that Rasmussen's enthusiasm has waned since then, as Khader's New Alliance has become an incalculable risk by making a seemingly endless array of reform proposals that are putting both Social Democrats and Conservatives under intense pressure.
A New Approach to Immigration
Khader's party is calling for massive tax cuts coupled with improvements in welfare services. Instead of placing asylum-seekers in hostels, Khader proposes that they live in the heart of society, where they should also be allowed to work. He criticizes the anti-foreigner policies of the Danish People's Party and demands that Denmark meet its humanitarian responsibilities and offer protection to refugees. His latest proposal is that Iraqi refugees whose applications for asylum have been turned down should be allowed to remain in Denmark for at least two years. And if the situation in Iraq fails to improve, he would also have them stay longer.
At the same time, Khader would like to see regular immigration linked to Denmark's economic situation and the requirements of the country's labor market. His political message could be summed up as "strict but humane." The party platform holds that successful integration also depends on the numbers of immigrants who come to Denmark.
The Conservatives are already on the offensive: "Voting for the New Alliance remains plagued by uncertainty as long as the party has not decided to support Rasmussen as the future prime minister," says their party chairman, Bendt Bendtsen. There are also reports that the Social Democrats have offered Khader a ministerial post in exchange for finally making a commitment.
But Khader knows that his party plays an important role because it can tip the scales. He has remained unruffled and said that the prime minister himself should decide if he wants to continue to prop up his minority government with support from the right-wing populist Danish People's Party. Khader says that if Rasmussen were prepared to make concessions to the New Alliance on important issues -- such as asylum-seeker policies -- he would be willing to back him as prime minister.
11th Hour Mudslinging
Meanwhile, events outside the world of opinion polls and surveys have also attracted the Danish public's attention. A heated dispute has broken out between Khader and the editor-in-chief of the mass circulation magazine Se og Hør. The glossy weekly published a story alleging that the politician had paid workmen under the table to work on his property. Khader denied the allegations and launched a counteroffensive. Trembling with rage, he repeatedly called the editor-in-chief a "pig," which is a particularly strong insult in Danish.
"The dream of Naser Khader" was the headline of a story run by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. The paper speculated over whether the charismatic Khader is professional and statesmanlike enough to lead the party and hold a cabinet position.
In just a few days, we will see if Danish voters share his dream.